George Eliot’s 1859 novella The Lifted Veil has, like Amos Barton before it, renewed my interest in getting back into Eliot’s long works—though hopefully it won’t be another two years before I finally move on that. Here, the themes are among my favorites: the problems of sympathy and understanding other people.
The narrator, Latimer, has laid his tale down for posterity in part because he’s never told a living soul anything about his real inner life. “I have never fully unbosomed myself to any human being; I have never been encourage to trust much in the sympathy of my fellow-men,” he tells us. But while he has never unbosomed himself, his fellow-men have, albeit unknowingly. As a young man, Latimer began to suffer from the strange condition of being able to read other people’s thoughts. And most of the people he spent time around didn’t think very positively of him at all.
At the same time as this condition develops, Latimer meets Bertha Grant, the ward of a family friend who will soon be engaged to Latimer’s older brother. Mysteriously, Latimer cannot read Bertha at all, and this fact makes her unsurpassably attractive to him. Into her coy, coquettish behavior he infers a special playful sympathy, and he has a vision—he is sometimes also clairvoyant—of them married. But in this vision, he can read her thoughts, and they are not pleasant. Still, he can’t help loving her and is determined to marry her:
Behind the slim girl Bertha, whose words and looks I watched for, whose touch was bliss, there stood continually that Bertha with the fuller form, the harder eyes, the more rigid mouth—with the barren, selfish soul laid bare; no longer a fascinating secret, but a measured fact, urging itself perpetually on my unwilling sight. Are you unable to give me your sympathy—you who read this? Are you unable to imagine this double consciousness at work within me, flowing on like two parallel streams which never mingle their waters and blend into a common hue?
Eliot takes on this subject from a different angle than many of my favorite writers and their works: instead of the desperate struggle to understand our fellow beings, Latimer is in a desperate struggle not to understand them. “So absolute is our own soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between,” Latimer avers. The Lifted Veil is a reminder that familiarity breeds contempt, and that a certain something must be left to the imagination.